How can we change the way we think about and act during conversations to alleviate political polarization?

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Hello, hello! I’m Sanaiya, and welcome to my project on the connections between political polarization and the field of study called game theory! Please feel free to watch my introductory video to learn more about who I am and how I’m outlining my project. 

Participating in conversations is never easy, especially when the topic is contentious and people disagree on how to solve it. Unfortunately, dissenting perspectives often prevent people from engaging with each other again (Finton). When poorly approached or understood, disagreement can lead to polarization within a community. My project addresses the question of how we can employ game theory to change the way we think and act in heated conversations that may otherwise further aggravate political polarization. 

What is polarization? describes polarization as a phenomenon that “happens when people become divided into contrasting groups. If a teacher lets the class vote on whether to have class outside or not, and half wants to stay and the other half wants to go, that issue caused polarization.” While this example isn’t the most political, it still showcases the creation of a zero-sum game, where the groups (or “players”) have opposing beliefs and ideals. Zero-sum games operate like tipping scales: if the indoor-class students get what they want, they win the game, and their happiness goes up. On the other hand, the outdoor-class students lose, watching their happiness go down as a result. The same can be said for lawmakers representing two different political parties, and I know I’m not the first to draw this analogy.

How does political polarization happen? 

To learn more about the underlying causes of political polarization, I consulted my sister, a university student majoring in Political Science. She explained driving factors such as social networking apps, news outlets, and “sensational rhetoric,” which occurs when politicians attempt to garner public interest using somewhat extreme language on popular platforms. Her insights also led me to think more about the psychological nature of disagreement, and she hypothesized that it can be “scary because you don’t know a person’s motives” and allow you to “conceptualize other people as the other.” From there, we may begin to conceptualize conversations with people of different political and social identities as zero-sum, but I think all of us can override this kind of “black-or-white thinking” and remind ourselves that it’s possible for both players to win or lose (Rainer). 

Political polarization from a game theory perspective

I believe conversations can be gateways to change. But, understandably, political polarization makes it harder for all of us to initiate them without feeling as though our viewpoint must win at the end. In turn, they become adversarial, non-cooperative games. I’ve seen interesting discussions about social issues such as feminism and abortion in my communities quickly veer off course, and we’ve all seen the productivity of recent presidential debates become victim to the same problems. 

My model 

According to Giulia Mantuano of DZone, “a conversation is made of at least two turns,” so each player or interlocutor must talk more than once in any given conversation (Mantuano). Since interlocutors respond to each other and don’t talk at the same time, conversations could fall under the category of sequential games. However, while one individual might be talking, the other may still be making intentional moves without necessarily opening their mouth—such strategies are nonverbal (Friedman). 

The model I’ve created is a conversational game where each player has three different strategies: speaking from their own experiences, employing facts and evidence, and deploying personal attacks—also known as the ad hominem fallacy. In a game, a player must think about the pros and cons of making any of these moves for themselves and for their opponent. The net value of the pros and cons can be expressed as payoffs to each player (also known as a utility in economics): numerical values that are very positive (+2), positive (+1), negative (-1), very negative (-2), or zero (0). Payoffs will be notated as [Talker, Listener]. 

The Three Strategies

Experiences Strategy, or EXP

Stories have the power to build communities and attach a personal meaning to a political belief, which may require vulnerability for the person who chooses to share their stories. The listener, in turn, discovers something new about the talker, and both players benefit. [+2, +2]

Evidence Strategy, or EVI

“Using narratives to make points instead of arguments is more likely to create long-lasting changes in opinions: narratives are not seen as manipulative and are less threatening to self-identity than arguments” (Finton). Caitlyn Finton of the Behavioral Scientist cites a study in one of her articles that points towards the lone use of facts and evidence as faulty in the long-term for the listener, even though they make the person who utilizes them feel secure in their beliefs. Their payoffs diminish over time: [+1, +1] in the beginning, but [+1, 0] and eventually [+1, -1] as the conversation goes on. We can average out the payoffs for the listener. [+1, 0]

Attack Strategy, or ATT

We see this strategy used frequently in  debates, and Jackson Rainer of MarketWatch sums up its consequences best: “reducing ideas to gender, race, level of privilege or sexual orientation” (Rainer). Personal attacks have the potential to cut off a conversation prematurely and negatively impact its productivity. Despite the emotional gratification and sense of justice that may come to the talker if they personally attack someone, their reputation may be at stake, and the listener may be badly affected by their words. [0, -2]

Two types of solutions arise from this table: the first is the Nash Equilibrium, which in essence aims to capitalize on one player’s payoffs. We can obtain Nash Equilibria by finding the best payoff for player one in each row and the best payoff for player two in each column and seeing where they intersect. The second is Pareto Optimality, which restricts outcomes that don’t facilitate social good. I’ve italicized Nash solutions and bolded Pareto solutions. Which do you prefer? 

(Trick question: in this scenario, the same outcome satisfies Pareto Optimality and Nash Equilibria.) 

For now response

In the past, I’ve felt worried about entering political conversations for fear that my ideas were too limited or not intelligent enough. What I didn’t consider was how if we change our strategies in the game of conversation to one where our experiences matter, everyone walks out with a greater understanding of a variety of viewpoints—and the people behind them. We create dialogue

I’d like to end this presentation with a moment that changed my perspective on political conversation and continues to give me hope. In ninth grade, I attended a meeting where a twelfth grader told us about his experiences debating a friend with starkly different political viewpoints than his own during a class. By the time that class had ended, they were heading off to lunch together, still as one community. As such, we don’t need to see conversations as combative games or debates where only one group can win and the other must lose to increase social good or the happiness of both players. While it surely is easier said than done, growing our awareness of the neurological root causes of a seemingly inescapable political chasm will allow us to become stronger, more productive, and more caring. It all starts with one person.

Further Reading — Where do we go from here? 

Want to discover more logical fallacies beyond the ad hominem personal attack? Check out the three websites above to see some examples of logical fallacies and cognitive biases playing a role in worsening political polarization—two of my favorites are the backfire effect and groupthink. 

Two other wonderful resources on polarization and trust in the present day! My principal introduced me to OpenMind, while I played the Evolution of Trust simulator as an assignment for my game theory class’s unit on cooperation. 

Reading articles from a different point of view than our own can help us understand why those views exist, while corroborating the bias of a certain source can help us become more informed consumers of the news. AllSides is a great website to start doing both of these things!

The origins! Writing up “Calling Out Disinformation” (it’s a little on the technical side) back in February gave me the tools I needed to make this project. I thought discussing political polarization for my Catalyst Conference would be a great opportunity to elaborate on what I had learned from modeling what happens when someone lies and doesn’t get caught. 


Lots of gratitude to Mrs. Izzo, all my classmates enrolled in the 2021 spring semester Global Online Academy classes, and the Catalyst Conference facilitators—I really appreciate your encouragement and feedback on my project! Another thank you to my English and Social Studies teachers from middle school to now for holding amazing discussions and teaching me the value of civil discourse. I’d also like to thank my friends and family, especially my sister, for supporting me, providing excellent peer reviews, and always being up to talk to me about game theory or politics. 

And lastly, a great big thank you to…YOU! I cannot wait to start engaging with everyone who reads my Catalyst Conference page. If you’d like to leave a comment below, go ahead and use one of the prompts below as a place to start, or fill out this form!

I. How has political polarization (or the quest for political unity) impacted you or your community? What kinds of strategies or resources would you suggest to help others engage in the most productive political conversations possible? 

II. My game theory team and I spent some time discussing the generalizations and assumptions game theory tend to make. Do you think it’s useful to reference ideas from game theory, psychology, or economics when talking about how to make conversations, dialogues, and debates better for everyone? Why or why not?

III. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” In the context of civil discourse, how do you think your community and society can best work to curb extremism and change the mindset of people who may have ideas rooted in oppression or discrimination? When should we take Nash’s approach to solving games, and when should we take Pareto’s? 

Works Cited

  • “Comparison of Dialogue and Debate.” Indian Prairie School District, Indian Prairie School District 204, Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
  • Finton, Caitlyn. “Conversations on Polarizing Topics Are Possible. If You’re Up for It, Here’s How to Start.” Behavioral Scientist, 9 Nov. 2020, Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
  • Friedman, Amanda Joy. “Conversation Is Everything.” Psychology Today, 22 Nov. 2018, Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
  • Mantuano, Giulia. “The 4 Key Elements of Conversation.” DZone, AnswerHub, 13 Mar. 2017, Accessed 18 Apr. 2021. 
  • “OpenMind Demo.” OpenMind, 2020, Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
  • Pew Research Center. “In Congress as Well as Public, the Center Increasingly Cannot Hold.” Pew Research Center, 12 June 2014, Accessed 18 Apr. 2021. Infographic.
  • “Polarization.”, Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
  • Rainer, Jackson. “5 Ways to Have a Civil Conversation in a Polarized Society.” MarketWatch, 9 Feb. 2019, Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
  • “Your Logical Fallacy Is Ad Hominem.” Your Logical Fallacy Is, edited by Jesse Richardson et al., Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.

Header image from Pixabay



  1. Very Interesting!

    1. Thank you, Joe!

  2. I love it!

    1. Thank you, Katie! I’m glad we got to work together this semester in GOA 😀

  3. I appreciate your personal notes and think this is a great topic for all of us to consider!

    1. Thank you, Mrs. Izzo! I hoped that incorporating my personal experiences with political polarization and great discussions would help hit home how they impact individuals.

  4. Sanaiya, I’m so impressed with the connection you make between game theory and polarization. So well thought out and argued!

    1. Thank you so much!

  5. Great job Sanaiya!

    1. Thank you, Naomi!

  6. Wow, Saniyah! Great to see a fellow Roman produce such a great project. I continue to admire Daryl Davis and people like him every day; having conversations and open dialogue is the path forward to a better future! Nice work, I learned a lot!

    1. Hello hello Jay, thank you so much for checking out my page! I agree—Daryl Davis’s bravery, courage, and intelligence can inspire anyone looking for a better future through conversation. 🙂

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